Walmart chose its Neighborhood Market in Levittown, New York, to test what will be the grocery store of the future. With artificial intelligence-enabled cameras, interactive displays and a massive data center, this store brings to customers a taste of science fiction, but soon this type of stores are going be part of the everyday shopping routine.
This store, called Intelligent Retail Lab or “IRL” for short, is a unique real-world shopping environment designed to explore the possibilities artificial intelligence can contribute to the store experience, according to Walmart.
Walmart’s tech incubator Store No 8 has positioned the store of the future within one of the company’s busiest locations. Testing new, innovative ideas within a real store containing over 30,000 items is an opportunity that Mike Hanrahan, CEO of IRL, finds exhilarating.
“We’ve got 50,000 square feet of real retail space. The scope of what we can do operationally is so exciting,” he said. “Technology enables us to understand so much more – in real time – about our business. When you combine all the information we’re gathering in IRL with Walmart’s 50-plus years of expertise in running stores, you can create really powerful experiences that improve the lives of both our customers and associates.”
What’s Inside the Store of the Future
IRL is set up to gather information about what’s happening inside the store of the future through an array of sensors, cameras and processors. All this hardware is connected by enough cabling to scale Mt. Everest five times and enough processing power to download three years’ worth of music (27,000 hours) each second.
According to Hanrahan, the first thing this equipment will help the team focus on is product inventory and availability. The team will use real-time information to explore efficiencies that will allow associates to know more precisely when to restock products, so items are available on shelves when they’re needed.
“Customers can be confident about products being there, about the freshness of produce and meat. Those are the types of things that AI can really help with,” Hanrahan said.
In this store of the future, a combination of cameras and real-time analytics will automatically trigger out-of-stock notifications to internal apps that alert associates when to re-stock. This sounds simple, but it means the store has to automatically:
- Detect the product on the shelf
- Recognize the specific product (meaning, decipher the differences between 1 pound of ground beef and 2 pounds of ground beef)
- Compare the quantities on the shelf to the upcoming sales demand
The Intelligent Retail Lab includes multiple information stations for customers to visit to understand exactly how AI makes the store tick.
As customers shop, they can interact with a number of educational displays. Small educational kiosks are interspersed throughout the store. A Welcome Center at the front end of the store of the future allows customers to dive deeper into technical specifications and common questions.
Among the customers who’ll be absorbing knowledge, IRL’s more than 100 associates will be undertaking these retail experiments every day, getting a firsthand view of what’s possible for the future, according to Walmart.
With technology performing mundane tasks like evaluating if shopping carts need to be corralled, associates will be able to spend more time on tasks humans can do best, such as helping customers or adding creative touches to merchandise displays on the store of the future.
“The technology has been built to improve associates’ jobs, to make their jobs more interesting, to help them alleviate some of the mundane tasks. AI can enhance their skillset in a very rapidly changing world,” Hanrahan said.